Every action, or inaction, is political in a degree. What we thought was happening was far from what was really happening, literally. A world apart, in fact.
“free will is for the lower classes – the ruling class acts out of necessity.”
– Adam Kotsko, religious scholar Shimer College
but what if we chose to ape them? as if we too, knew the actual stakes?
free will being all about choices – made before it’s too late!
we got a video in the mail; “there is an ongoing need to operate this equipment”
detailing the wages and benefits – it was for the wives, to push their striker husbands back to work
the hubris enraged us – but who were “we”?
a set of workers, right wing talk radio listeners, born again Christians, African Americans from the ‘hood, poor white trash, Vietnamese immigrants, old patriotic men who “fought for freedom Over There”, guys who finally started buying Japanese cars once they began making them “over here”, it did not matter…
we knew the company was our enemy
months before the strike began I saw a newsletter from the company, all about the civil war in Liberia
I was struck by a note that rubber plantation workers had no indoor restroom facilities – I reflected on my own life in the Ozarks, we had an outhouse and had to haul clean water from miles away. So the company owned a real plantation, just like in the Old South, where company officers lived like kings and workers lived in squalor, relieving themselves outdoors, but now come these air attacks, government versus guerilla rebels, the newsletter stopped short of detailing a story that would soon unfold — mass genocide by a fascist monster named Charles Taylor.
The American ambassador arranged a tense meeting in the jungle with Taylor:
A news broadcast from the time showed that the meeting disintegrated quickly. With cameras rolling, Taylor received (Ambassador) De Vos in an anteroom furnished with a gilded white and gold Louis XV couch and chairs covered in plastic. Dark wood paneling rose above red carpet. Impeccable, Taylor wore a dark suit, with a white pocket square and red tie.
De Vos, dressed in a rumpled suit and bow tie, and large, square glasses, was sweating profusely. He greeted Taylor. Then, he introduced Ensminger, tan, fit and mustachioed.
“This is Mr. Ensminger, the director general of Firestone,” De Vos said.
Taylor looked puzzled. “Oh, he works for the embassy now?”
“No, America works for him,” De Vos replied.
–ProPublica, “Firestone and the Warlord” November 2014
We didn’t know when the strike would be settled, but the labor relations board had ruled in the union’s favor (why did it take so long, almost two years? Possibly this?
and the company was forced to rehire us, so I worked my phone company job in the morning and showed up for half a shift each day at the tire factory. As I’d been locked out for over two years, I took three years’ worth of vacation, worth more now since 12 hour days had been imposed. Then a tentative agreement was reached, whereupon my absences were set back to zero, and soon I had a choice to make: Quit and lose my chance at a (too stingy in my view) 13k settlement when the contract was signed? or try something different….
For I flew the final mission in the Japanese sky
Set off the mighty mushroom roar
When I saw the cities burning I knew that I was learning
That I ain’t marching anymore
— Phil Ochs
Jingoistic rhetoric flowed like a river from union leadership, blaming the Japanese owners of the company and invoking Pearl Harbor. A delegation from our local went to Japan under the auspices of the AFL-CIO, and this occurred exactly at the time of the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The delegation returned humbled, one leader noting that our strike seemed “puny” by comparison to the suffering that went on with that mass slaughter of civilians. This notion enraged our local president, who had repeatedly claimed our fight wasn’t about “politics” but merely a fight for a “fair contract”.
The Burn Barrel Sage
As summer turned to fall in 1994, we burned wood in metal barrels on the picket line to take the chill out of the air. We watched as scabs began to slowly increase the plant production, and were discussing the company’s efforts to get us to cross picket lines. I was on fire with Marxist conviction, newly acquired, but was taken aback by the clarity of an old tire worker’s analysis, who I’m sure never read Lenin’s “What is to Be Done?” or Trotsky’s “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”, but proceeded to break off these nuggets: “They want you to think there’s this pie, and you better get your piece of it before it’s all gone. They want you to run back in there and work, ‘before it’s too late’. But it isn’t like that, the work will still be there. There’s enough work for all of us, it’s just right now they want you to think there’s not”.
As the plantation began to be overrun by Taylor’s ragtag “troops”, comprised mainly of teenage boys firing AK 47’s wildly at any and all “targets”, the 8,000 plantation workers were told they could not be evacuated, while the plantation managers whisked away in a corporate jet. A significant number were tortured and killed, and the plant manager’s driver had the soles of his feet hacked off with a machete.
During the multi-sided civil war that started nine years later, sadistic teen-age killers sporting names like General Fuck Me Quick, Babykiller, and Dead Body Bones arbitrarily executed civilians and decorated checkpoints on the roads with human heads and entrails. Often on drugs, wearing fetishes they believed made them impervious to bullets, and garbed in costumes ranging from novelty-store fright masks to wigs and women’s bathrobes, these murderous adolescents raped, pillaged, and slaughtered at will. Many engaged in cannibalism, eating the hearts and genitals of their slain enemies in order to enhance their “power.”
–Jon Lee Anderson, the New Yorker July 1998
Firestone paid Taylor 35 million in “protection money” for the right to reopen the plantation, which he spent on weapons to expand his war of terror into Sierra Leone. But even this plan was foiled by aerial attacks from the “legitimate” Liberian government, which rained bombs down upon the plantation that was now Taylor’s headquarters.
I worked up all my nerve and walked over to one of the scabs working on a “stock cutting” machine. I had taken care to time my ploy in close proximity to shift change, when I could count on dozens of witnesses waiting to receive pre shift work instructions. I said “you make me sick. I’ve got two friends who are still locked out and you’re in here working overtime”. He played into my hands: “I’m gonna kick your ass!” I was elated: “what did you say?” He repeated it, louder. I shouted, “this man is threatening me! He says he’s gonna kick my ass!” The supervisor shouted at me to sit down and shut up. I shouted “I’m not gonna sit down and shut up, this man threatened me!”
The managers marched me to the front office, where I faced Carl Burt, the meanest, nastiest manager in the plant. “So what did you say to this man to make him want to kick your ass?” “I just said ‘good morning’, I don’t know what made him go off” “Did you say good morning to anyone else when you came in?”, he asked. “He did me!” replied my union rep, a guy to whom I’d never spoken a word. ‘Yeah, I did him!” I said, my heart thumping in my chest, amazed at the quick witted solidarity on display. Carl Burt shook his head and ordered a guard to walk me out of the plant, suspended until further notice.
I immediately went to a rally at a Firestone retail store where visiting Japanese labor activists were loudly picketing and dressed in Samurai warrior outfits. They were mainly rail workers who had been involved in a struggle over privatization and job cuts that had prompted suicides among their coworkers. It was surreal. There was quite a language barrier but through an interpreter I managed to convey that I had been a rail worker too, at one time.
I managed to buy time until the settlement was reached, and collect the money before I resigned, as I was not fired but suspended for a month for “violating the mutual respect policy” and insubordination, for not sitting down when I was told to. I was off for a month, whereas the scab was off for only two weeks – but no matter, I had taken the risk and it paid off. I saw the union rep at a labor day parade and told him “you made me 13 grand that day”, and he said “well you at least owe me a beer”. I said “yes, that is for sure”.
When I tell this story it is with some trepidation; it is as if I advocate individual acts of resistance over collective action – I became the talk of the plant, as the bosses warned the scabs that “these guys coming back off strike will pick a fight with you, as they have other jobs”. But I was also well known for writing a cover article in the local free paper, Cityview, about the strike called “Firefight – Diary of a Firestone Striker”. I didn’t do anything revolutionary. I merely aped the ruling class’s actions in the realm of “doing the necessary”.
The main reason I write this is not to recount the story of an old man reminiscing about long ago events which matter little today. No, what I mean to do is say that events are globally interconnected – things that happen here and now may be connected to something happening a world away, and you may not know it until 20 years later. Our struggle is and must be international, the fight between capital and labor is constantly being obfuscated, papered over by the imperialists (by this I mean representatives of the highest stage of capitalism) and their media mouthpieces.
Just yesterday I read a syndicated article by a right wing opinion page writer Mona Charon who works for a “Policy and Ethics” think tank, regarding Donald Trump. She apologized for Trump’s buffoonery, but it was only a symptom of anger and resentment in the populace and called for a politics of right wing “inclusion” as opposed to the left’s “execrable” racial divisiveness, as if “we didn’t have a Black president, as if it were Selma 1965, as if any thinking person was opposed to the idea that ‘all lives matter'”.
This appeal to “common sense” is the stock in trade of bourgeois ideologists and AM radio shock jocks everywhere. Workers must be vigilant whenever the “we” is invoked – as if “we” were all one monolithic entity, not divided by classes under capitalist social relations. The continual attempts to paper over and obfuscate class divisions and channel politics into cultural and identitarian dead ends is how they maintain hegemonic control over our consciousness.
The labor movement leadership, according to Adolph Reed, cannot teach workers about economics lest they begin to question capitalism, hence making their function as mediators obsolete, so the vacuum is filled by big business notions of economics through their vast network of media and “education”. So it is with cultural hegemony; the police “only do what is
necessary” and if they commit one or two immoral acts, it is merely “what they had to do”. Same with bosses, same with Firestone; the plantation “had to operate” even if in collusion with a genocidal madman. Their motives are not subject to the critiques workers are — the benchmarks of “free will”, “making bad choices” and other moral effluvia spray from bourgeois mouthpieces, with the old standby “common sense” as the conversation stopper.
When it suits the purpose of the ruling class, “we” are all a hegemonic bloc with a few cultural differences, in need of appeals to “common sense” – any other time we (i.e. the working class) are atomized individuals admonished to make the right choices, before it’s too late, under the rubric of “taking personal responsibility”.
No, we must refuse to limit ourselves to the “narrow horizon of bourgeois right”, and overturn all social relations by any means necessary.
The real horror is, the bourgeoisie will do the same thing here as they do “over there”. Their battle against the working class is international- the same tools, tanks and machine guns they use against the Iraqis and Afghans they will use against militant rebels at home. This is why militarized police departments have become the norm.
Charles Taylor wanted to model Liberia after an imagined US style society, calling himself an “economist, not a politician” who just wanted to initiate a little “fairness”. It was not about working class liberation for him. Firestone aided and abetted him, because capitalism is amoral- ethics and religion take a back seat to profit under this system.
The Hiroshima bombings were totally unnecessary- the war was all but over, the attacks were to show the Soviets what the capitalist ruling class could do if its interests were threatened.
There was a union at the Liberian plantation, but we were never told of its existence.
In recently declassified documents Firestone tells the State department it was relieved that the union was back in place at the plantation, signifying things were “back to normal” after the civil war.
During our strike at Firestone, we were under the impression it was taking so long because the Labor Relations Board was like, busy or something. We were told it was the shady Japanese owners of the company, who attacked us at Pearl Harbor, that were out to destroy our “middle class” American way of life. How could we have known that the enemy was much closer to home: the same imperialists who committed genocide on this continent have, and will, do it elsewhere in the world.
Only the working class which produces the wealth that drives this brutal system can stop it. It is the only class with a future – the others have no reason or will to change social relations and bring about a new and better world. It must be educated and organized to fulfill its historic mission.